The Weak Link

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Published: November 10, 2016

We are now 8 games in and the Pelicans have as many victories as I have Buddy Hield jerseys. (Maybe this is what is holding us back, I’ll test this and get back to you). The lack of success has the fanbase in a tizzy. Who do we blame? The coach? The players? The GM who acquired the players? The person who hired the GM? Where does the buck stop? ( Hopefully Thursday night in Milwaukee)

I can’t pretend I know the right answer here, however, I do want to look at this from a more zoomed out level. I’ll start by introducing the concept of weak link/ strong link sports. After we are all nice and confused, we will take a deeper dive into how it may apply to the Pelicans, roster building, and take a look around the league.

What matters more?

Last week, I came across Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast while at work. It’s pretty good and I recommend checking it out, but in his episode titled My Little Hundred Million, Gladwell makes the claim that America is soccer ( a “weak link”) and not basketball ( a “strong link”). What the hell does he mean by that? Well a few years ago, economists Chris Anderson and David Sally came out with a book called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong. One of the questions they ask is “What matters more if you want to build a great soccer team? How good your best player is? Or how good your worst player is?”

Anderson and Sally contend that in soccer, it matters more how good your worst player is. In soccer, there are 11 players on the field at any given time. The assertion here is that each player depends on another to function as a unit. While the best player on the team might be twice as good as the worst player, he cannot do it all by himself. The example used in the podcast was that of Lionel Messi. Messi is leaps and bounds better than the average soccer player, but in order for him to score, it might take a sequence of 8 perfect passes to set him up so he can finish. If at any point along that sequence some player makes a mistake, Messi’s world beating skill is wasted and those 8 perfect passes are worthless.

“Mistakes are produced by weaker players,” argues Sally. Upgrading the end of roster players leads to more success on the soccer field than upgrading your best player or your superstar. The underlying assumption here is that it is also easier to upgrade your weaker players than it is to get another or better superstar. As the overall talent rises, mistakes are in turn reduced. Thus soccer is categorized as a “weak link” sport.

Basketball, Anderson and Sally claim, is a “strong link” sport – a sport where having the absolute best player on the court makes more of a difference. And to an extent, it’s true. Basketball is probably the most superstar driven team sport. There’s a reason teams like Philly have spent years tanking in search of that franchise changing talent. Or well built teams like the Hawks come up empty handed against LeBron every year. The example used in the podcast is that of Michael Jordan. Jordan, they claim, could get the ball when he wanted and do virtually whatever he wanted. He could take the game in his own hands and dominate. Messi, who does this at times too, requires more set up and facilitation from his teammates.

So does the “strong link” argument hold up in basketball?

At first glance, it absolutely does. Take a glance throughout history and you will see over and over how one generational talent carried their teams to unexpected heights. Hakeem carrying the Rockets to championships in the 90s, Iverson dragging Philly to the finals, and of course the near decade of success LeBron has enjoyed. 2 years ago we saw LeBron carry a depleted Cavs team to 6 game vs the juggernaut Warriors in the Finals. The next year we saw him take it all against an even better incarnation of the same Warriors. Basketball favors the strong link and it’s undeniable.

But as the game has evolved, I think smart organizations are buying less and less into strong link oriented play and opting to shore up depth and “versatility” to encourage team oriented or weak-link play. This shift in paradigm could not be more clear than basketball’s move away from the post up big man. There used to be a time where offenses were built around the bruising back to the basket big. Teams in the 90s would slow the game down, dump the ball in the post, and watch their big fella go to work. But with the changes in illegal defense rules coupled with the rise of analytics, the post up has ever diminishing value in the league. Teams now are all pick and roll this, pace and space that. Coaches want players to actually move on offense instead of doing their best impression of a mannequin. The pace has sped up since the nineties, and the number of 3 point shots teams attempt has increased as well. Games have become more perimeter player oriented, as guards have the ball in their hands and are looking to push the tempo.

Gregg Poppovich was among the first recognize this shift. He realized the days of running the offense through Duncan in the post were coming to a close in the mid 2000s. Instead, he reinvented his offense around Parker and Ginobili. As defenses became more and more sophisticated, Poppovich placed more and more value on the pass. Movement was survival, and ball stopping was death. The Spurs always had a motion offense, but during the Duncan centric days, they played some of the slowest paced ball in the league. Each possession was deliberate and had to be valued more. But with Parker and Ginobili, pick and rolls and spacing became the focus. This philosophy shift is perhaps an underrated reason for the length and productivity of Duncan’s career. Not only does a faster pace mean more possessions, PnRs are inherently more efficient looks than post ups. The Spurs didn’t perfect this in a single season, yet the shift was apparent and deliberate. However, this would not have been possible had Tim Duncan not bought in. He was the franchise star after all, and in most cases, teams try to appease their stars and ensure they get the most touches. But old Timmy and the rest of the crew bought in with no qualms.

Pop and the Spurs built themselves a system that maximized every player in it, and if you didn’t get with it, you found yourself not playing and soon off the team. The Spurs upgraded their weak links, designed a system to make them successful and dominated the superstar heavy Miami Heat team in 2014. Their get rid of the weak link oriented methodology set the blue print for the Warriors. Sure the Warriors had a blossoming superstar in Curry, but they had that with Mark Jackson too. It was when Kerr and his assistants (oh hey Alvin Gentry was one of them) stepped in and completely revamped the offense, the Warriors #tookflight.  Take Curry’s own words in this excerpt from the New York Times. (By the way, check out the whole piece, it talks about some very similar points being made here.)

“We play a certain style where everybody’s involved,” Curry said. “There’s a lot of skill involved — skill that’s showcased by ball movement and flow. Based on the strength that we have on our roster, we try to highlight that.”

Everybody’s involved. And the moves the Pelicans have made over the last couple years suggest they want to do the same thing.

Ceilings and Floors

You may have heard people mention Monty Williams provided the Pelicans with a higher floor, but not a higher ceiling. Monty’s system and overall philosophy was designed to cater to the strong links. The game plan was simple. Slow down the pace to make each possession more valuable, run a high pick and roll with your guard and Anthony Davis, and crash the offensive glass on the misses. This system worked – Davis thrived in a pick and roll offense while he and Asik were good at cleaning up the change left over drives by Tyreke, Jrue, or Eric Gordon. Likewise on the bench, everything went through Ryan Anderson – was the strong link, and offense went through him. On nights where shots were falling, the Pelicans looked great and their strong links carried them. But on nights when Anderson was chucking bricks, or defenses were bottling up the pick and roll – the Pelicans had nothing to fall back on from other players.

Gentry, coming off a championship stint with the new age Warriors, was brought in to help the Pelicans reach their ceiling. The direction could not be more opposite than the one Monty Williams spent 5 years heading in. We knew what the Pelicans were under Monty, just like the Warriors knew what they had with Mark Jackson. But we had to find out if they could be something more. The change had to be gradual. Like in any science experiment you need a control and a variable. Alvin Gentry was the variable, and Demps’s decision to retain the vast majority of the roster was the control.  But the experiment was a complete disaster. The Pelicans set a record with 366 man games lost, throwing to wind the continuity drum the front office beat all last offseason. What was meant to be a careful move to evaluate the impact of the coach suddenly had almost no meaningful data you could use to evaluate. Yet time waits for no one, and Demps did not have another season to run the experiment again. The contracts of Gordon and Anderson were expiring while Anthony Davis’s extension was kicking in. There were also reports around the team concerning certain players not buying into Gentry’s system. Kendrick Perkins was the first to say “this is not what I signed up for.”

“[The coaches] are trying everything. They’re trying to put us in a position every night to be successful. The effort is not on coach. It’s on players.”

And he wasn’t alone. Both Davis and Gentry also called out the team’s energy and effort during the season, and there was a lot to suggest the locker room was not in the right place. The ball stopped moving like it did in the preseason, and so did the players. This apparent lack of buy in combined with the impending free agency catalyzed the need for change. Whether or not you believe there is pressure from the ownership, something had to be done.

With a core of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis, along with limited cap space, the easiest place to start was to upgrade the “weak links”. Especially on the defensive side. Enter Solomon Hill, E’twuan Moore,  Langston Galloway, and Terrence Jones. These multipositional players were brought in to play “powerful defense” and complement the deadly Holiday-Davis duo. Continuity transformed in to “versatility” as the theme of the offseason, and once again the Pelicans were ready to play a fast, ball moving, and fun style of basketball the players supposedly bought into. But as opening night approached, the Pelicans were heading into the season without their “strong links” in Jrue, Tyreke, and Quincy. The new “weak links” remained exactly that, but instead of replacing the old ones, they were asked to step into the shoes of the better players who were missing.

And here we are at 0-8. Our lone strong link is playing out of his mind right now, and we have yet to register a single win. The New Orleans Anthony Davis’s are the living embodiment of the fact that upgrading your best player (which is absurd AD could even do that) doesn’t mean as much as upgrading your worst. And our worst players right now are baaad.  But all is not lost. The players haven’t abandoned the system yet. Gentry has had nothing but praise regarding the effort night in and night out. The Pelicans sport the 14th best defense – best in the Anthony Davis era. But the offense is a putrid 27th. It’s not as if the Pelicans aren’t generating the looks – they rank 1st highest in frequency of generating “open shots”, and 6th in generating “wide open” shots. But the players aren’t making buckets. Is that something that will get better with the return of Jrue and Tyreke? Will players feel more comfortable as the fall back into they lower usage roles they are used to? We don’t know. But for the first time in years, we might have a clearish picture of the problem and a possible outline of a solution.

It’s still too early to tell and say anything conclusively, and the season can very easily spiral further should more players get injured. But there might be something to look forward to. Here’s to a win tonight. Somebody get me a Buddy jersey.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. ByronMarcusWashington

    November 11, 2016 at 6:13 am

    Great article

  2. CoReMeGa

    November 11, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Seriously…. Gr8 article!!!
    Keep up the good work

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